When my father first visited Andalusia, Spain over twenty years ago he immediately fell in love with its highly poetic Moorish characteristics and in a sentimental kind of way it made him feel proud. It reminded him of a period in history when as Moors we were able to achieve an incredible level of cultural advancement and a sophistication that are now practically irretrievable for the Arabs and this made him cry.
For the place harks back to a time - which lasted for nearly eight hundred years between the 8th and the 15th Centuries - when the Arts, Architecture and Sciences thrived and flourished and when the rugged landscape was turned into a paradise. If you are to visit any part, from Seville to Granada, Cordoba or Malaga, you will not help but notice this unique stamp everywhere.
Especially for the Arabs, I cannot but advise of the necessity to go and visit the most beautiful of remnants which have been terrifically preserved and that evidence, display and define our big moment in history; even if admittedly it did not end too well. Without a doubt, one must see the Alhambra Palace in Granada, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Alcazar and the Giralda in Seville and romantic Ronda.
Back to my father. Deeply enamoured he decided for Spain to be his preferred retirement with my mother when work and the stress of his job would ease. When he saw a gorgeous villa in the Costa del Sol at a perfect price during the early 1990's, he didn’t hesitate to invest, although sadly he didn’t live long enough to enjoy it or make his dream a reality.
But for the rest of us – my mother, four siblings, two in-laws and three beautiful nieces - his fantastic buy has been a god-send and a blessed bequest as we no longer face the annual conundrum of deciding where to go on holiday. All we do is book the plane tickets to Malaga, hire a family car and off we go.
The Costa Del Sol And The Tourists
Of course, we are not alone in travelling to this part of southern Spain on a annual basis. For the Costa del Sol attracts over ten million tourists a year who want the good sunny weather, the abundant beaches, the food, wine, golf, the buzzing nightlife, culture and for some even the gambling.
While many tourists stay at hotels, the majority organise for rented and serviced apartments or property shares in chalets or villas that work out much cheaper. Large developments by the sea are still built to contain the unabating demand. Not to forget to mention the very affluent who arrive by yachts and station themselves at the marinas that the Costa del Sol is renowned for.
The only hindrance is you'll need a car for transport; otherwise, you will get stuck in one location without exploring the out of reach parts that are more authentic, defining and rewarding to discover. The Auto-via is well designed and sign-posted with quick toll route and car-hire companies based at the airports.
The Villa and My Mother’s Orchard
Our villa is placed in the Lost Hidalgos residential area further along the coast from Malaga and towards Gibraltar. It is forty minutes drive after Marbella and Puerto Banus and ten minutes from the town of Estepona. Within walking distance, there is a tiny fishing village, the beach in front and the small Puerto de la Duquesa marina.
From the terrace balcony we have a clear view of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean Sea and a local golf course. When the skies are clearest, we can even make out Morocco and its mountainous terrain. Truly, it is this glorious panoramic painting that one returns for.
Plus we are adjoined to a plot of land my father bought where he heartily planted seeds of his favourite herbs and fruit trees. He felt it would connect him to the country and its special soil. Now, after all these years, they have grown, matured and been reaped - thanks to my mother, who takes great care and makes use of them.
So when we sit on the balcony there is fresh mint is in our tea, the food we cook is flavoured with the basil, coriander and rosemary. She is the one who collects the juicy figs to eat, makes salad with the creamy avocado, prepares the olives and collects the tasty green pears, nectarines and grapes. Fully in charge, she will only allow the gardener access to her sacred orchard. Even so, she and him argue about everything.
The Architectural Landscape and the Old Town Plazas
Without a doubt, the Costa del Sol is defined by its Moorish architectural landscape. From the white washed and terracotta covered buildings with their Arabesque mosaics and courtyards, to the palm trees that decorate the towns, villages and streets and the typical blossoms that enhance the bigger canvass of the naked earth, wide blue skies and open seas.
At some point you will enter by foot and discover even more about the old towns with their characteristic plazas and cobble-stoned alleyways. There are also the churches, the shops and the houses that are beautifully preserved, maintained and modernised to sit side by side with the influence of centuries past.
If you pay attention you will also hear the sound of dripping water from the pretty fountains; and, as you look up, you can almost pick the oranges, the lemons and the grapes. The scented roses and the jasmine also offer a miraculous shade away from the heat.
The Beaches and the Chiringuitos
Most tourists descend with a hot agenda or ie the sun and sea. Luckily the beaches of the Costa del Sol are all public and free. Nobody can technically stop you whichever stretch you set your heart on. The only charge is to hire a parasol or a lounger on the more popular beaches.
But I say it is best to drive away from the tourist parts and go further West. We've learnt from the Spanish where the best beaches are. What you do is place your car in the makeshift parking bits, bring your own gear (towels, chairs and umbrellas) and enjoy the whole day out with the family and friends from noon until just before sunset that is the popular hour to leave.
Whichever bit you find, the Mediterranean here has soft grey sand and the water is refreshingly ice-cold that beckons even the water-shy to dive in. As for the locals, the beaches are not just for swimming and sun-tanning but a way of life where all the socialising, exercising, playing, drinking and eating takes place in the Chiringuitos.
The Chiringuitos are informal hut-style establishments set on the beaches and open to all. They serve the best fresh seafood you'll ever taste at a fraction of the cost of a formal restaurant. The beauty is you simply walk in with your bikini or trunks on, wet hair wet and the sea sand in your feet and indulge in the most delicious pescado. Our favourites to order: gambas pil pil, calamari, pulpo, sea-bass a la plancha, red mullets and fried sardines. Not to forget tasting the gaspacho or ordering the paellas if there is room in your tummy.
Marbella And Puerto Banus
People normally associate the Costa del Sol with the famous Marbella and the high life of Puerto Banus. Without a doubt they are worth a visit as they cater and provide to the quite often sophisticated tourist. I would say they are the best base for a first time if you can find affordable accommodation.
Marbella is elegant, architecturally graceful and full of charm, especially in the old town. It offers discrete and impeccable service for many running away from the limelight with many gated code-entranced residential areas where the villas cost a bomb. They tend to have their own associated golf, social and gambling clubs.
Whereas Puerto Banus – a modern construct built around a harbour - is more openly posh, brash and flashy which attracts the mega luxurious yachts, owners of the latest designer cars and has many bars, cafes, night clubs and restaurants open till early morning. It is where you might catch a glimpse of royalty and the famous stars,as they walk along the promenade in their gorgeous and glamorous outfits or if they are bronzing their perfect bodies on the groomed beaches. Puerto Banus is where showing off truly reaches new heights and where the most decadent fun can to be had.
But for me the novelty of Marbella and Puerto Banus has worn off and I prefer the less foreign-invaded and tourist-monopolised parts.
Estepona, Plaza De Las Flores
Every time I arrive in Spain, the first thing I do the following morning is go to the nearby town of Estepona and head straight to the Plaza de las Flores. Normally, I sit with my sister and we order our cafés con leche and a croissant tostada con maramalata to share. Truly this is the most delightful spot where you can see how the Spanish locals go about their day to day and all uninhibited and uninterrupted.
We learnt here how the Spanish prefer their breakfast down in their local café eating the churros con azucar with a glass of hot chocolate to dip in; and, that for lunch, they will feast on calamari, prawns and mussels with a pint of cervesa. Not to forget their beloved tapas downed with a glass of tinto de verano and that the beach is where they practically live during the Summer.
There are also many annual open celebrations of Flamenco music and dance festivals, the odd Bullfight and the religious Catholic processions. These are a wonder and a joy to watch or join in.
This is why I keep returning for more.